9 December: Save The Date!

On 9 December 2016, the Bridging the Unbridgeable project will organise a usage guides symposium at the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics. Speakers will include Rebecca Gowers (author of the revised edition of Plain Words and of the recently published Horrible Words), … Continue reading

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Strunk & White in our very own NRC-Handelsblad!

I don’t always read the Dutch writer Pia de Jong’s weekly column from the US in our paper, but last night, turning over the NRC, my eye was immediately drawn to the words Elements of Style: Strunk and White in NRC-Handelsblad, wow, a truly major event in Dutch newspaper writing. (Lovely image btw, Eliane Gerrits!)

In the article, Pia de Jong narrates how she received two (!) copies of the book as recent birthday presents, and enthusiastically reports on the useful writing advice she encountered in her reading of it. To be sure, Strunk and White is probably the most successful (in terms of publishing figures, that is!) usage guide of all times, but may we give you some serious advice here, Pia? Before you actually start implementing  what you find in the book in your writing, first read Geoffrey Pullum’s comments on the book. They may make you think twice – well, hopefully anyway.

Strunk&White in de NRC



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Fingers crossed, please!

A few weeks ago, I submitted our HUGE database as a candidate for the Nederlandse Dataprijs. By mid-September, the jury will nominate three potential winners, and we hope to be among them. What is more, we would really like to be included in the list of winners below, so do please keep your fingers crossed for us!


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“Basically … rather good”

Just decided to check up on the reception of Simon Heffer’s new (well, two years old by now) usage guide called Simply English, and found that Ben East, in The Guardian, described it as “basically … rather good”.  Interesting, in view of the rather substantial criticism this “journalist-turned-grammarian” as Ben East calls him, got on his earlier book Strictly English (2010). When confronted with this criticism in the online debate between usage experts “Between you and I the English language is going to the dogs” broadcast in 2014, Heffer seemed unaffected by what linguists like Geoff Pullum and David Crystal had said about his earlier book. So has anyone read Simply English yet, and is it indeed “rather good”?

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Frank Sinatra and prescriptivism

This summer, driving through France, one of the CDs we played was “The best of Frank Sinatra”. Singing along with his very popular “That’s Life” (1966), my attention was suddenly caught by his use of laying for lying: “Each time I find myself layin’ flat on my face …” (sung here a bit faster than on our own version). Ha! Would that be one of the reasons why lie/lay is the most treated usage problem in the usage guides in the HUGE database?

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9 December: preliminary programme

We have now drawn up a preliminary programme for the symposium on 9 December. Details about how to register will follow towards the end of July, beginning of August.

Symposium: Life after HUGE?


Rebecca Gowers, “Another One?”

Why I wanted to write Horrible Words. What I thought I was after. Certain ways in which I know the book failed. Other ways in which I hope it modestly succeeded. How some of the responsibility for all this can be laid at the feet of Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, her colleagues and various of her PhD students. An undertaking never to try anything similar again.

Oliver Kamm, “Prescriptive Grammar: the Quest for Correctness”

Popular discussions of “grammar” are remote from the findings of modern language scientists. Yet pundits, politicians and journalists dominate these debates. Why do they exercise such sway when their message consists of little more than a list of arbitrary “rules” that were untrue even when they were devised? It has to do with antiquated notions of gentility and proper behaviour. Linguistic research is making belated inroads into education but has to constantly contend with popular worries about “incorrectness” in grammar and orthography. It’s a destructive opposition.

Harry Ritchie, “The Fearful Backwardness of the Natives”

Harry Ritchie describes the dreadful results in the English-speaking world of the continuing reign of prescriptivists and the complete ignorance of even the basics of linguistics. Rather than celebrating their linguistic expertise, native speakers  are taught to be ashamed of their English. Rather than celebrating dialect diversity, English-speakers are taught that only standard is correct, and any non-standard usage is inadequate or just wrong. The result is a perniciously effective and never-acknowledged system of linguistic discrimination, based on class in the UK, and class and race in the US.

Robin Straaijer, “Following Fowler: A birdseye view of the most influential English usage guide”

Last year, a book called Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Butterfield 2015) was published. Written, or rather compiled, by a lexicographer at the Oxford English Dictionary, it is the fourth edition of Henry Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Fowler 1926), or what we have come to know as ‘Fowler’. This latest edition, though still ‘a Fowler’, is understandably rather a different book than its ninety-year old original.

So how did we get there? I will take you through the various editions of the Dictionary of Modern English Usage and show how throughout its publication history it has been shaped by the development of the genre of usage guides, as well as how it influenced this process at the same time – not just in terms of content and methodology, but also in terms its wider place in the world.

I will show how other usage guide writers have been following Fowler: how the original Dictionary of Modern English Usage has changed the genre, since Fowler “is not just one in a long row of usage guides but a special case, and arguably the most influential usage guide throughout the 20th century” (Busse and Schröder 2010: 52) and has become “the generic model for prescriptive usage books” (Peters 2006: 763). Taking Butterfield’s new Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage as a jumping-off point, we will follow Fowler from book to institution to brand. I will illustrate how the content of ‘Fowler’ has changed with the times by showing some examples of usage problems drawn from the HUGE database (Straaijer 2014) and how they compare with Butterfield’s 2015 edition.

In addition, I will talk about one usage guide writer who followed Fowler: the American legal lexicographer Bryan Garner, who seems to have been actively branding himself as the American version of Fowler.


Busse, Ulrich, and Anne Schröder. 2010. “How Fowler Became ‘The Fowler’: An Anatomy of a Success Story.” English Today 26: 45–54. doi:10.1017/S0266078410000088.

Butterfield, Jeremy. 2015. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fowler, Henry 1926. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Peters, Pam. 2006. “English Usage: Prescription and Description.” In B. Aarts and A. McMahon (eds) The Handbook of English Linguistics (759-780). Oxford: Blackwell.

Straaijer, Robin. 2014. The Hyper Usage Guide of English (HUGE) database. Leiden University. http://huge.ullet.net.

Lyda Fens-de Zeeuw, “The HUGE presence of Lindley Murray”

The grammarian Lindley Murray (1745–1826), by all accounts, was the author of the best-selling grammar book of all times. Not surprisingly, therefore, his work was submitted to severe criticisms by competitive grammarians and authors of usage guides, who may have considered that Murray’s success could negatively influence the sales figures for their own books.

The HUGE database comprises 77 usage guides from 1770 until 2010. I decided to find out in which of those guides Murray is referred to and more specifically, how his views on the dos and don’ts of the English language are dealt with by their authors.

Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, “Creating an online usage (guide) community”

Abstract to follow

Carmen Ebner, Viktorija Kostadinova, Morana Lukač: presenting their research findings

Proceedings to be published in a special issue of English Today.

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How do sticklers react to linguistic findings?

Here is Lingyun Lai’s second blogpost:

Sometimes, grammar handbooks and usage guides address similar usage issues, but their conclusions are not always the same. Nowadays, quite a few grammar references are based on corpus linguistics, and many such descriptive findings disaffirm prescriptive beliefs. I am curious about how sticklers react to those contradictions. Do linguistic findings exert any influence on usage guide writings?

At high school, I learned that when asking for permission, ‘may’ is more proper than ‘can’. For instance, instead of asking “Can I borrow your pen”, I am supposed to say “May I borrow your pen”. However, the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (LGSWE 1999) presents a different picture (from: LGSWE 1999, p. 491):

LGSWE Lingyun Lai

The graph shows the frequency of four modals, can, could, may and might, with the CONV column reflecting conversation, and ACAD academic prose. The statistics shows that all four modals are scarcely used to express ‘permission’ in academic proses. In terms of conversation, LGSWE writes: “May is rarely used in conversation. When it does occur, it typically marks logical possibility rather than permission”. This conclusion means that in actual language practice, most of time people use “can I” to ask for permissions, and that it is more customary to say “Can I use your pencil”. LGSWE highlights the inconsistency between their findings and the prescriptive preference, “Despite a well-known prescription favoring may rather than can for expressing permission, may is especially rare in the sense of permission” (Biber et al. 1999, p. 493).  More than fifteen years have passed since LGSWE published this result, and I wonder if it has ever influenced any usage guide author.

I looked into the HUGE database, and found sixteen usage guides published after LGSWE. After checking each entry, I noticed that most of them still consider may as the more suitable verb for asking permission. For instance:

“Don’t Say: Can I use your lucky bowling ball? Say instead: May I use your lucky bowling ball?” – When Bad Grammar Happens to Good People (Batko, 2008)

May I? requests permission. Can I? asks whether I am able to do something” – The Queen’s English and How to Use It (Lamb, 2010)

“It is still widely held that using can for permission is somehow incorrect” – Oxford A-Z of English Usage (Butterfield, 2013)

Pam Peters’ The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (2006) is the only usage guide that I found to be directly influenced by LGSWE. The Longman corpus was referred several times in her section on “can or may”.  Peters’ general opinions are in line with corpus findings; she acknowledges that may is mostly used to express the meaning of possibility. However, she still holds that may is more formal and polite than can, when used to express the sense of permission (Peters 2006, p. 88).

From this case study, I wonder if most of the usage guide authors are immune to the output of academic research. If they found out linguistic conclusions contravene their convictions, would they budge?

I couldn’t resist adding this cartoon to Lingyun’s post: it was made by Dennis Baron, as an e-card for Henry Fowler on th occasion of his 150th birthday:


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Forever dangling? The unstoppable dangling participle under scrutiny

Here is Ina Huttenga’s second blog post:

The dangling participle is a pervasive structure in the English language. These “misrelated” modifiers have been used throughout English language history, but they seem to have become problems only recently, in the 20th century (as Ingrid Tieken and Carmen Ebner will discuss in a forthcoming article). There is even an Old English attestation of the structure, as  F.Th. Visser has shown in his phenomenal Historical Syntax of the English Language (1966, Vol. 1, Part 2, 1996, p. 1073), and even famous English writers like Shakespeare used dangling participles, according to J. Lesslie Hall in English Usage (1917). Has the rule against them been grasped out of thin air?

A dangling participle is a participle acting as a modifier, that seemingly modifies the wrong subject (or object). However, as Carmen Ebner discusses in an English Today article, the resulting meaning problem may be disambiguated by the larger surrounding language context.

While the dangling participle is only a recent usage problem, it seems strongly condemned. A survey by Mittins et al. conducted in the late 1960s found a low 17% overall acceptability for the structure. A more recent survey of English usage items by the Bridging the Unbridgeable project yields a similarly low acceptability: currently 15.7%. However, another survey I conducted this year led to a much higher acceptability of dangling participles, and I will discuss this survey in this blog.

In my survey, I examined the structure using the following sentences:

S1 – Lying in my bed, everything seemed different.

S2 – If found guilty, the lawsuit could cost the company US $12 billion.

S3 – Barring unforeseen circumstances, the meeting will take place next Monday.

S4 – Tired and lonely, the photograph depicted her tear-stained face.

S5 – Generally speaking, the weather in France is agreeable.

S6 – Driving along the road, the supermarket appeared on our left.

S7 – The children ran into the house calling for her.

Two of the sentences would be considered correct by many usage guides, namely S5 and S3. Many  usage writers feel that these participles have become grammatical parts of the language and no longer dangle (e.g. Fowler, 1926). One sentence, S4, did not contain a dangling participle, but two dangling modifiers, namely misrelated adjectives. (Dangling participles are a subclass of these dangling modifiers.)

Unlike in the Mittins survey, I did not highlight the usage problems in the sentences, nor did I state what the survey was specifically about. Instead, I told participants that they should “judge … [the] grammatical accuracy” of sentences. I wanted to see whether respondents even noticed dangling participles. They were asked to indicate whether they found the sentence acceptable in informal speech, informal writing, formal speech, and formal writing, or in none of these settings.

81 people participated in the survey, about half of them native speakers of English. I calculated the average acceptability per sentence for the different registers, and these can be seen in the graph below, from the sentence with the lowest acceptability (S4) to the one with the highest, S3. For all the sentences together, the average acceptability was 49%. This includes S5 and S3, which would be accepted by many usage writers. If these sentences are removed, the average acceptability is 33%. Forty-two (52%) respondents knew what a “dangling participle” or “misplaced modifier” was. Of these the majority (38) noticed them in the survey.

grafiek Ina Huttenga

The average acceptability of the dangling participle in this survey was higher than that found in the Bridging the Unbridgeable survey (15.7% across the different registers see above). Some of the reasons for this may include the larger number of sentences judged, as well as the fact that participants’ attentions were not drawn to the misrelated participles. However, another important factor that probably affected the judgements was age. The participants in my survey were fairly young. 48 of my 81 participants (59%) identified themselves as being between 18-30 years old. T-tests also showed that age and value judgements were related: those below 30 were significantly less critical of the sentences than those above that age. It is quite likely that the younger age of my respondents led to a greater acceptability of the structure. Age has often been mentioned as a topic worth investigating in prescriptivism, and is also something that Ingrid Tieken and Carmen Ebner discuss in a forthcoming article.

The higher acceptability of dangling participles by young people begs a question: could it be that in future, the rule against the dangling participle, like that against the split infinitive, will be considered an out-of-date usage norm? In any case, it seems that, with its long usage history, the dangling participle will not disappear from the language any time soon.


Mittins, W.H., Salu, M., Edminson, M., & Coyne, S. (1970). Attitudes to English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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